Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Nature of English Fiction Writing in India

I am sometimes asked why I do not possess many English fiction works by Indian writers. At the moment I have three novels that I recall: The Englishman’s Cameo by Madhulika Liddle, which I got at its launch, The Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripathi and Fallout by Usha Ananda Krishna which my publishers at Tranquebar gave me.

Of the three, I have loved Fallout. It is dark comedy in just the right places and has a murder that might have happened purely because a writer was critically acclaimed. It has been written remarkably well. The prose is spare, which I appreciate because it seems to be rare in Indian writing. My publishers tell me it got panned by critics.

So, going back to my first sentence. I do not follow many Indian fiction writers, possibly to my detriment–and here I must explain that by Indian writers I mean those based in India, not abroad, nor expatriates or those of Indian or mixed parentage who have, at least for now, returned to the mother country.

I could be facetious and say I’d rather read writing from other countries, but that would not be the whole truth. Nor would be the undeniable fact that they are better written. There is so much to read about from India. There are stories of such immediacy and colour to be explored, understood, even empathised with, such remarkable characters that can be sketched, coloured and animated. I have not read these stories yet among the mass that is Indian writing.

I have found that writers based in India are limited in their plot. While good writing can frequently win a book through, in the absence of stellar writing, an interesting plot might just satisfy the lay reader, and I count myself with him.

Most Indian writing I come across might have passable word-work, but their plots are about people like you and me going on with their lives. There is no harm in writing about us, you know, or at least there would have been no harm if we, the reading, almost-reading, pretending-to-read, working professional upper or middle-middle class in this country represented a composite—or at least a significant—idea of what this country is. We don’t, and that is the core of the problem. If the lives of a country’s people were evaluated as newspaper editors measure story ideas, our lives are single-column stories. The seven-column fliers, the anchors, the two-page spreads are not among us.

Most Indian writers and their readers come from a certain urban background, with a common education, upbringing and lifestyle. As students in school we are limited to our everyday lives and the high walls around us. In college we are limited to spending our parents’ money in limited endeavours and, if fortunate to live in hostels, getting a small idea of the other kinds of India there are.

Then we get jobs and continue in them, limiting ourselves to the workplace and our friends. If literature, from what I understand of it, is about drawing from our own experiences for the most part, the pool we can access in this country is cripplingly inadequate. If you look at the lives of writers from the West, they drifted across different fields. Some were waiters for a while, bus drivers, lift attendants, sometimes journalists, enlisted men, buffalo hunters, you name it, they did it. The strong vein of individualism that runs in the West liberates them in ways we might not experience in this country for a long time. They are free to see the world in its entirety and to fashion stories and characters from where they will.

This problem in India is compounded by writers who come from a metropolitan background. There is no harm in being from a big city either, but the range of experiences one might get in our increasingly homogenised metros is so limited that every story emerging from here appears to look like another. The same kind of people, dressed and speaking identically, debate about the same topics in similar eating places over similar food in story after story. To call it déjà vu would be to wake Jung and shake him, and since he was by all accounts an irascible man he wouldn’t like it.

As far as non-metropolitan stories go, the stable of writers originally from these places is limited as things stand today. This divide between the language in all its beauty being available to a small number of people who do not have access to a wider horizon of existence, and the language not being available (except as a key-to-the-kingdom kind of upward aspiration) to those from the hinterland is what cripples English writing in India.

The few that straddle this divide have a different albatross to carry—identity, or rather, identification. I can speak about the North-east, from where I am. The example is not without context, considering the increased focus writing from or about the region has started getting from Indian publishers today. The major fear I have is in the rush to mine the well-springs of stories from that land (and it is a gold-mine, but which place in India isn’t?) publishers might permit a lot of chaff to creep in with the grain.

It is in the nature of chaff to do this, and it is the duty of publishers to winnow thoroughly. I would not read a work by a Jarawa from the Andamans only because there is no Jarawan writing so far. Neither would some other readers, I am certain.

That brings us back to the problem of identification. If a person is from a certain under-explored region, this does not imply she has to write about it to the exclusion of everyplace else. Re-considering the North-east example, it is very difficult for a person from any one part of it to have or provide a complete picture of the whole, or even the idea of the other, or at least not over several books. While the person might write story after story about her land, this will limit her range, although, considering the really good writers who do so, they are a pleasure to read.

There are different Indias, and there are different lives. The ones which contain within them the kernels of memorable stories and characters are still waiting for the light to shine down on them. If only our writers stepped out into the cold a little more.

(I haven’t talked about genre fiction from this country. I will, sometime later.)


  1. What you say is true only about English writing. Vernacular fiction is rich, individualistic, and has stories and characters which jaded writers in metros can't even dream about.
    Unfortunately,good translations aren't just available.

  2. Yes, my stoned friend, I agree with you. Vernacular writing in this country is the only kind of literary field that gives me hope. Which, as you rightly pointed out, brings us to the problem of good translations.

  3. Wow, very nicely written. But then, I would buy a book written by a Jarawa only because there IS no Jawara writing! :p I picked up East of the Sun mainly because it was about the Northeast and I don't know much about that region. Twas a pleasure to read, and was very informative.

    I'm sharing this article :)


  4. RS, thank you so much for liking it. But what if you hadn't? Would the book then not have done a disservice to the other, vastly better-written books by North-eastern writers about the North-east? Would you not have been put off from the really good writers from the region? I would have, I fear.
    And I agree about the Jarawa example, specifically. I would pick one up too, read it once for the people it represents, and then again, perhaps, for its standalone literary value.